The opening section of Parashat Vayikra speaks of the various korbenot nedava – voluntary sacrifices that a person has the option to bring (ola, mincha and shelamim). The Torah introduces this section with the phrase, “A person among you who offers a sacrifice to the Lord…” (1:2).
Rashi, citing the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 2:7), famously notes the Torah’s use of the word “adam” (“person”) in this verse (as opposed to the more common term, “ish”), and explains that the Torah alludes here to Adam Ha-rishon. According to tradition, Adam offered a sacrifice to God after committing the sin of the forbidden tree. The Torah alludes to Adam’s sacrifice in this context, the Midrash comments, to indicate that just as Adam obviously did not bring a stolen animal as a sacrifice – as the entire earth belonged to him, so he was incapable of stealing – likewise, a person who wishes to offer a sacrifice may not offer a stolen animal.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayikra 8) offers a different explanation for the allusion to Adam in this verse: “It means to say – when a person sins, like Adam Ha-rishon, who was the first to sin, he shall offer a sacrifice.” Normally, a person who brings a voluntary sacrifice seeks atonement for a misdeed, and thus in speaking of such a case, the Torah makes a subtle reference to Adam, the first one to sin and seek atonement through the offering of a sacrifice.
We might wonder, according to the Midrash Tanchuma, why this allusion is necessary. Why must we be reminded of Adam’s sin and process of repentance in the context of the voluntary sacrifices?
Rav Yosef Salant, in his Be’er Yosef, suggests that this association is made to remind us of the consequences of wrongdoing. Adam’s sin serves as the paradigmatic example of a forbidden action that yielded drastic and catastrophic effects. Mankind forever forfeited the idyllic conditions of Gan Eden, and suffering, hardship and death were introduced into the world. The Torah thus alludes to the individual who has acted wrongly and seeks atonement to recognize that every action has consequences. The process of repentance must begin with not only an admission of guilt, but also the realization that somehow, and in some way, every wrongful act we commit and every wrongful word we utter has an effect on ourselves and upon the world. This realization, uncomfortable and unsettling as it is, must accompany our process of repentance and help motivate us to improve.
We might add, however, that the subtle reference to Adam also reminds us that notwithstanding the significant adverse consequences of wrongdoing, we are given the possibility of atonement and recovery. Despite the gravity of Adam’s sin and the gravity of its consequences, he was afforded the opportunity to repent and earn forgiveness. And thus as a person considers offering a sacrifice as a means of atonement, and naturally begins to wonder whether such a process is even possible in light of the seriousness of his misdeeds, he is reminded of the story of Adam. He is shown that indeed, even after the most catastrophic act of sin, we are, indeed, empowered to recover, to repair ourselves and our relationship with God, and to once again earn His favor, as long as we are sincere in our contrition and our desire to grow and improve.